Skip to content

The newest arena in the environmental battle: the bedroom

print01758a.jpg

With a mind toward the environment, the adult toy industry is moving away from using phthalates, or chemicals that soften plastic, in their products, like the cleverly disguised ducks above. Courtesy: Babeland

printECOa.jpg

Moving to be more environmentally friendly, the adult toy industry is moving away from using phthalates, or chemicals that soften plastics. The eco-sexy kit from Babeland, above, has a phthalate-free toy, soy candle, and all-natural lubrication and condoms. Courtesy: Babeland

Touting the health benefits of greener products, the environmental movement has found a new arena in the $400 million to $500 million erotic toy business.

Many adult toys mix phthalates, chemicals that soften plastic, with a polyvinyl chlorate (PVC) to create a rubber-jelly-like product. The health effects of these substances are the subject of conflicting reports, but because some research suggests that phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) could cause health problems, many retailers in the adult toy industry are moving away from using these chemicals.

Since the PVC and phthalates don’t completely combine chemically, the phthalates can break away from the PVC over time, resulting in stickiness, an oily discharge or an odd smell or taste. Environmental groups endorse the decision to abandon the use of phthalates as part of their push to limit the use of plastics in general.

“It’s important that people are thinking of orgasming and being body positive, but also being healthy and eco-conscious,” said Mae Shultz, marketing coordinator at Babeland, a Seattle-based adult toy store that just started phasing out phthalate products.

Several studies over the past five years have suggested that there could be dangers linked to human contact with phthalates. In one study, the di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate was shown to be harmful to the liver and testes. Other phthalates are suspected of possibly changing the hormonal makeup of young males.

Phthalates are found in numerous everyday items. In fact, the main source of contact with the chemicals is through food. Much of the food consumers eat has been sealed in plastic made with phthalates. Children’s toys, too, contain phthalates, and in 2004, the European Union banned children’s toys with three different kinds of the substance. But subsequent studies by the U.S. government said the amount of phthalates in toys was negligible. Canada has banned phthalates in teething rings and rattles, but in no other products.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission said phthalates in children's products "were safe after doing extensive testing, including mouthing, where children use teethers," said Karin Schmidt of the American Chemistry Council. "If they're safe for that use, they're safe for use in other toys."

The concern for phthalates in children’s toys sparked the concern about the adult toys that use them.

In 2006, separate Danish and Dutch studies evaluated the presence of phthalates in sex toys. The first study found that the specific phthalates found in the toys were carcinogenic to lab rodents but the amount found in the toys should not be harmful to humans.

The second study, sponsored by the environmental group Greenpeace, merely tested for the presence of phthalates in toys. It found that that seven out of the eight most popular adult erotic toys contained high levels of phthalates--50 percent of one toy was made out of the chemical.

In addition to breaking down over time, phthalate-based erotic toys are not easy to clean. In fact, Good Vibrations, a San Francisco store, recommends using a condom over a phthalate toy to prevent the spread of infection. The material is porous and could harbor bacteria, the store warns.

Babeland and many other shops offer heavy-duty glass, stainless steel, silicon and elastomer alternatives. These are not porous and can be boiled or heated for better cleaning, according to store owners.

“I’ve owned jelly rubber sex toys that stain things they touch with a greasy mark, toys that pick up the colors of other toys, and once even had two jelly toys chemically melt into each other in a puddle of goo,” said an adult entertainer who sells erotic toys to vegetarians on her Web site, vegsexshop.com. She refused to give her real name.

The short lifespan of jelly toys isn’t ecologically friendly, and the waste isn’t biodegradable. Toys made out of alternative materials last longer, and some even have interchangeable parts if the product stops functioning.

“In general, buying high-quality items is one of the best things you can do in an ecological sense,” said the owner of vegsexshop.com, “because you’re going to own that item for a longer period of time without the need to replace it on a regular basis.”

Adding to the concern about phthalates is that manufacturers of erotic toys are not required to list the materials contained in their products. And some of them, once they realized consumers thought silicon was a safer bet, began making silicon-phthalate mixtures and labeling them “silicon,” said Carol Queen a “sexologist" for Good Vibrations.

Because stories about phthalates are spreading through the mainstream media and adult toy trade magazines, many in the industry are moving to change their practices.

But there is no requirement to do so. Since the toys with phthalates are cheaper to make, they are the most inexpensive items on the market. The economic value will keep them around for a while unless a more authoritative health-based study is conducted, said Queen, who is also co-founder of the Center for Sex and Culture, which provides sex education.

“I think it’s going to be a while before anyone can step up in the research,” Queen said. “It’s not likely that research with sex toys is taken seriously.

“What we have now is suspicion," she said. “We don’t have hard information.”

E-mail: hjc2114@columbia.edu